Michael Jackson is famous for several iconic dance moves like the moonwalk, the toe stand, and the crotch grab. But one move, in particular, stands out from all the others for one very specific reason: It’s physically impossible, and your brain knows it. When you see it happening, you’re thinking, This isn’t right … Is this person magic? Well, you’d be right. Science also backs up the impossibility of mastering Jackson’s famous anti-gravity lean.
In a study from the Journal of Neurosurgery, a team of scientists breaks down exactly what was happening when Michael Jackson performed his anti-gravity lean. The average body’s limit for bending with a straight back is 20 degrees. After that, your body will snap in half, or worse, you’ll fall down and look like a big goober. His lean, they calculated, was at a 45-degree angle. So how could M.J. bend more than twice as far as everyone else? As it turns out, he had some help.
That’s right, it’s the shoes.
In 1993, Jackson patented his own shoe design that allowed him to achieve this impossible feat. There was a triangle slot in his shoe that he hooked into a matching spot on the stage floor. Right before he did the lean, a metal rod shot up from the stage into the sole of his shoes that locked him in place. From there, his feet were firmly planted to the floor and he was free to lean. This secret shoe might not come as a surprise to some, but there’s a lot more going on than just fancy footwear. It all comes down to center of gravity.
When we strand straight, our center of gravity lies in front of the spine’s second sacral vertebra. When we lean forward with the fulcrum at our hips, the erector spinal muscles support the spinal column as our center of gravity shifts. But when you have a straight back and the fulcrum is at your ankles, the pressure starts to transfer to the Achilles tendon — which can only stand so much force before you collapse.
Even with M.J.’s secret shoes, bending at a 45-degree angle puts incredible strain on your Achilles tendon. Trained dancers can usually go to about 30 degrees, but that’s it. These dancers needed to go 15 degrees further, hold it, and then return to a standing position, all while looking fly and resisting the urge to scream in agony. Touching your toes is hard enough, so we consider this move to be seriously superhuman.